Friday, July 11, 2008


Before I went on holiday I spent some time reading through James Owens' two fine poetry collections An Hour is the Doorway and Frost Lights a Thin Flame.

I don't know enough about the development of American poetry (as opposed to British, though I'm trying to read up on it) but I do know that in the broad spectrum of poetry I'm more attracted towards the strongly imagistic and that takes priority, for me, over straightforward narrative.

I don't feel the need to comprehend a poem to enjoy it, was it Pound that said a poem should be an event in itself not just the recording of an event. I look for a poem I can experience rather than read and empathise. I loved Plath's poetry long before I knew anything about her life or understood what a good number of her poems were about, for me they were an experience of words on the level of the senses.

I'm not at all saying Owens' poems don't employ narrative or are incomprehensible but that his poems are an experience on the level of the senses and that is what first and foremost attracts me to them. This kind of writing seems, to me, to be more prevalent in American poetry than UK poetry though the pamphlet I read recently by Andrew Philips was very much an experience of the senses in a similar way.

In Owens' collection An Hour is the Doorway there is a kind of Romanticist sense of the beauty of things which is always juxtaposed with the brutality of reality. In 'Movies about Anonymous Women' the scene is set of a woman in an 'ideal meadow' who swims in a stream with 'pearls of cool water clinging to her shoulders'. However, in a very anti-Romanticist ending her imagined lover does not come for her, she gets out of the water and 'bored, / she starts kicking the heads from flowers'. This ending image takes on a brutality beyond itself because of its juxtaposition with the setting up of the poem. The collection is full of startling images such as 'as if in the womb / you ate a match' (World) .

One of my favorite poems 'All-Night laundromat' performs the reverse of 'Movies about Anonymous Women' where the very unromantic, gritty setting of the laundromat is transformed into an Eden. I really love this poem where the whole world becomes the laundromat and the only people that exist are the narrator who is writing and a 'tired, middle-aged woman' who is 'loading her clothes'. I feel a kind of epic sadness for the writer and the middle-aged woman both alone in this laundromat at night, who do not speak, yet the writer states with almost Plathian pathos 'I am free', while the woman 'stares out the window / into herself'. There are so many levels in this poem one could spend hours over it. I love the image 'I could stay as calm and complete / as the monotonous machines'.
Overall these poems are generally very nature-orientated, observant of small detail, yet so much is happening beyond the scene they describe that each poem feels like a little life all of its own.

In Frost Lights a Thin Flame what strikes me from the first reading is the awareness the poems have about themselves as language, words, syntax manipulated into a poem. The very first poem titled 'Elegy for Speech' sets the tone of the poems to come where words become gnats swarming around the wounds of our mouths. Language, conscious of itself, becomes as real and concrete as nature. In 'Your Name in Early Autumn', words again become external, concrete objects where 'your name flutters / from the twigs of your fingers'. I found this approach to language in poetry rather fascinating having not come across it before apart from Plath's 'Words', or if I had I never really noticed.

There is so much more to these two collections than I have mentioned, in fact I'm not kidding when I say that an essay could be easily written on each individual poem. I thoroughly recommend both collections and know I'll be frequently dipping in and out of them

8 comments:

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Great insight into Owens' use of language & imagery, Sorlil. Really enjoyed your discussion on his poetry.

Sorlil said...

thanks sam.

Dave King said...

I do so agree with you about not being put off by an incomplete understanding of a poem or poems. A poem should be an experience, and like any experience may not be fully understood at the time, though that may come later. A poet whose work I find to be full of irresistable images is W.S.Graham. I don't pretend to fully understand him, but I cannot go for long without picking him up again. You lose a lot if you worry too much about meaning too early on, I think.

Sorlil said...

I also really like W.S. Graham, not least because he came from not far from where I live!

Frances said...

I love WS Graham too even though sometimes I think he overdoes the references to language and communication.

Thanks for this post sorlil. A lucid and fascinating account of these collection

Frances said...

Sorry that's a typo. Collections is what I meant!

Sorlil said...

thanks frances, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

anhaga said...

TAG!